At Delaware estate, Stanley Steamer automobiles rolling along

Tom Marshall stands next to a 1910 Stanley Steamer, one of 15 in his collection.
Tom Marshall stands next to a 1910 Stanley Steamer, one of 15 in his collection. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 10, 2012

In 1683, a year after William Penn set foot in America, the Marshall family arrived. They eventually began farming and establishing grist mills in the Red Clay Creek valley of southern Chester County.

In the mid-1850s, they began making paper at their mills, then fiber and later vulcanized fiber.

As their mills prospered, Israel Marshall and his wife, Elizabeth, built a grand Victorian mansion on a hill overlooking the mills and the whistle-stop village of Yorklyn, Del. They christened their impressive home Auburn Heights.

The magnificent home still stands and is now owned and operated by the state of Delaware as part of its park system - Auburn Heights Preserve. It is fully furnished and shows the tastes of three generations of Marshall residents. In 2008, the house and four acres around it were donated to the state by its most recent occupants, Thomas Marshall Jr. and his wife, Ruth, who moved to a nearby senior community. The state purchased an additional 300 acres to preserve some of the Marshall mills and protect the rural character of the surrounding land.

An intrinsic part of the preserve that is not under state control is the T. Clarence Marshall Steam Museum, named after Thomas Marshall's father, which is leased from the state by the nonprofit Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve and houses the largest collection of operating Stanley Steamer automobiles in the world.

"My father didn't leave me a lot of money," says Marshall, now 88, "but I inherited his car collection. I can't take it with me, so I figured if I could get people lined up to perpetuate this steam technology, it would survive so it could be enjoyed by future generations. I'm so pleased the property was saved and is part of the state park system."

A mechanical genius who could fix and build anything, Clarence Marshall became fascinated with steam-powered automobiles. Inspired by the large steam power plants in the mill, he constructed his first steam car at age 19 by replacing the small internal combustion engine of an Orient Buckboard with steam power. From 1910 to 1920, Clarence was an authorized dealer for the Stanley Motor Carriage Co., based in Newton, Mass., and in the 1940s, after buying a used Steamer from a local man, he eventually amassed a collection of 40 cars, including 24 Steamers.

At Clarence's death, the collection numbered 34 vehicles, which Tom Marshall gradually reduced to 24. Today, the collection comprises 15 Stanleys, two Packards (including an exquisite yellow phaeton), and one early electric car. There is also a display of some of Tom Marshall's beautifully preserved standard-gauge Lionel electric trains from his childhood.

In an adjacent carriage house, volunteer members of the "Steam Team" restore the cars and keep the temperamental vehicles well tuned and roadworthy. They also help run and maintain the Auburn Valley Railroad. Circling the estate are two sets of tracks, each about 7 inches wide, on which travel coal-fired steam engines, one-eighth the size of the real thing (Union Pacific 4-8-4 passenger locomotives), that carry delighted visitors on a tour of the grounds, including a tunnel, a trestle and a lakeside park.

Early Quakers were notorious for their frugality. Tom Marshall doesn't reject that characterization. At the same time, no one can gainsay his generosity, which was motivated in part by practicality. He and Ruth are childless and have no heirs. To carry on the steam museum, Marshall formed the "Steam Team" in 1997, and its volunteer members gather on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for work nights, though many are there at other times as well.

"They're the glue that holds this place together," Marshall says.

The public can enjoy the fruits of their labor on the first Sunday of every month from June to Thanksgiving (Steamin' Sundays) when the preserve is open for rides on the steam trains and one or more of the Stanley Steamers. Mansion and museum tours are also available by reservation at other times.

Marshall may be 88 but he is at the museum and tinkering in the carriage house workshop just about every day. He knows so much about steam cars that he could assemble one with his eyes closed. He derives particular satisfaction from transmitting what he knows to the "younger generation," often retirees in their 60s and 70s.

"It's a lot of fun," says Jerry Novak, 71, a retired Dupont engineer who was engaged in restoring the mechanical components of the collection's 1916 Rasch and Lang electric car.

Speaking of Tom Marshall, he says, "He can run rings around us younger guys. He's here every day, and because these cars need lots of care, we're always going over stuff with him. What we can't make ourselves, we have made, and we're proud that all the cars in the museum operate."

Steve Bryce, 66, board president of the Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve, has been a volunteer for 51/2 years. He recalls how Marshall taught him to drive a Steamer in about five months so he could take part in the Eastern Steam Car Tour in June 2007.

"He trusted me with a car on that tour," marvels Bryce, "and I've been driving them ever since."

"The thing about him is that he so generous with these irreplaceable antique vehicles, and it's all about making sure people like me get hooked and are willing to spend the time taking care of them."

On tours, Marshall is a revered figure whose wisdom is constantly tapped. For his part, Marshall modestly says, "After 60 or 70 years, I'm still learning."

The other day, Marshall took me for a ride in one of his stalwart favorites, a 1915 Stanley Steamer mountain wagon. It was originally a logging truck but has since been outfitted with seats that accommodate 15 passengers.

The electric starter, which became universal in internal combustion vehicles after World War I, rendered Stanley Steamers obsolete, even though the so-called "Flying Teapots" could outdo many contemporary cars when accelerating from a standstill and climbing hills. But Steamers had their disadvantages. It can take at least a half hour to ready a steamer for the road. First the pilot light has to be lit with a torch. Then fuel has to be pumped into the burner, and water into the boiler, until enough pressure builds to push the pistols and power the drivetrain. The cars are fueled by either gasoline or kerosene and have a driving range of about 30 miles before their water tanks must be replenished.

A hundred pounds of pressure was sufficient to ease the wagon out of the garage, but Marshall kept pumping fuel with a long lever until the pressure gradually rose. A couple of times, he had to release a geyser of hot water from the boiler because there wasn't enough room to generate sufficient steam.

When the gauge showed 400 pounds of pressure, he released the brake, moved the throttle on the steering column, and the Steamer got under way. Most rides are short circuits around the mansion's driveway, but on this day, Marshall ventured out onto the main road, and drove down to the old mills. A bigger treat was in store: As part of improving the park, the state had just completed paving a 1.2-mile loop, which is designed for walkers, runners and cyclists - plus the museum's antique cars. Workmen putting finishing touches on the project invited Marshall to give it a maiden whirl. The Steamer negotiated the winding turns and hills with ease.

"When my father would drive his Packards, he would often say, "It's almost as smooth as steam," Marshall recalled.

The mountain wagon was indeed smooth and quiet, and like most veteran drivers of Steamers, Marshall seemed to be paying more attention to the gauges than the road.

"In the early'20s, people made fun of these old cars," Marshall said. "But they don't laugh at them anymore."

The expression on his face conveyed both serious concentration and bliss.

"You never know what will be here 10 or 20 years from now," Marshall reflected, "but I think with the group we have here, the staff and volunteers, there's a good chance it will be perpetuated in a way that would please me and my father."


Contact staff writer Art Carey at acarey@philly.com.

For more information, visit www.auburnheights.org.

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